Did the U.S. Navy have its revenge for the Israeli attack on the Liberty?
Two incidents in the eastern Mediterranean only a little over six months apart involving Israeli and U.S. military forces may lie at the heart of two major cover-ups. According to U.S. intelligence sources, the willful Israeli attack on the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence collection ship, the USS Liberty, on June 8, 1967, during the Israeli-Arab “Six Day War,” was followed by the U.S. Navy sinking the Israeli submarine, the INS Dakar, in January 1968.
There are also indications that U.S. Navy distrust of the Israeli military and intelligence services continued long after the Israeli attack on the Liberty, an attack that killed 34 US. naval personnel, including NSA signals intelligence analysts, and wounded over 170 other crewmen on board.
The Israeli attack on the Liberty has been mired in controversy ever since the day it occurred. Israel continues to stand by the story that it attacked the clearly-identifiable U.S. ship in international waters north of Sinai because it had been mistaken for an Egyptian vessel. However, many top American naval and government personnel, including the then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer, CIA director Richard Helms, NSA deputy director Louis Tordella, Undersecretary of State George Ball, Undersecretary of the Navy Paul Warnke, Clark Clifford, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, rejected the Israeli contention. U.S. military officials, as well as diplomats and journalists, have concluded over the years that Israel’s attack on the Liberty was purposeful and designed to destroy the vessel and kill its crew. Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson III (D-IL) was defeated in the 1982 Illinois gubernatorial election largely by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) money after he questioned Israel’s version of events about its attack on the Liberty. Stevenson lost by 1/7 of 1 percent of the vote in a recount after the first count showed him winning.
USS Liberty in dry dock
In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson was planning on running for re-election. Knowing that making an issue of the Israeli attack on the Liberty would hurt his standing among deep-pocketed Jewish contributors to the Democratic Party, Johnson buried the incident.
Just five days after the Israel attack, on June 13, 1967, Johnson was asked about the Liberty at a White House press conference. “Q: Mr. President, do you have any more facts that you can release on the attack on the USS Liberty?” Johnson incredulously answered “No. I think you know about as much about it as we do.” Certainly, if Johnson included the NSA in “we,” the NSA certainly knew that its vessel had been purposely attacked by the Israelis. But Johnson remained silent. Moreover, there have been several credible reports over the years that Johnson ordered a major cover-up of the incident not only to curry favor with Jewish Democrats in return for their tamping down their criticism of the Vietnam War but also to preserve America’s close relationship with Israel, a relationship to which Johnson was fully committed.
Johnson continued to cover up the Liberty attack in his memoirs, “The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency 1963-1969,” published in 1971. Johnson wrote: “June 8 began on a note of tragedy. A morning news bulletin [emphasis added] reported that a U.S. Navy communications ship, the Liberty, had been torpedoed in international waters off the Sinai coast. For 70 tense minutes we had no idea who was responsible, but at 11 o’clock we learned that the ship had been attacked in error [emphasis added] by Israeli gunboats and planes. Ten men of the Liberty crew were killed and a hundred were wounded [emphasis added, Johnson was in error on both counts, 34 men were killed and 173 were wounded]. This heartbreaking grieved the Israelis deeply, as it did us. There was a possibility that the incident might lead to even greater misfortune, and it was precisely to avoid further confusion and tragedy that I sent a message to Chairman Kosygin on the hot line. I told him exactly what had happened and advised him that carrier aircraft were on their way to the scene to investigate. I wanted him to know, I said, that investigation was the sole purpose of these flights, and I hoped he would inform the proper parties. Kosygin replied that our message had been received and the information had been relayed immediately to the Egyptians.”
The fact that Johnson used the hot line to contact the Soviets was an indication that they were aware of the Israeli attack on the Liberty and that what Johnson said “exactly what happened” was a lie and the Soviets, who had a massive naval and intelligence presence in the eastern Mediterranean saw through Johnson’s big lie.
That Johnson was willing to cover up a major naval incident would also be of use to the Soviets in May 1968 when another incident involving a Soviet submarine and the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion would require a mutual cover-up by the White House and Kremlin.
On December 19, 1980, the United States and Israel formally closed the chapter on the Liberty attack. The agreement came a little over a month that the U.S. ship, the SS Poet, which had delivered arms from Philadelphia to Iran as part of a secret “October Surprise” deal worked out by the Reagan-Bush campaign and the Iranians to ensure that Iran did not agree to a U.S. embassy hostage release before the November election, was sunk with the help of Israeli forces after delivering its cargo to Iran. Thirty-four American seamen died on board the Poet, ironically the same number that died on board the Liberty. The Israelis agreed to pay the United States $6 million in addition to the $7 million it previously paid to the families of the 34 dead U.S. servicemen and the wounded crewmen.
Originally, the State Department wanted $17 million to cover repairs to the Libertyplus accrued interest. Shortly after President Jimmy Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ephraim Evron, quietly asked Vice President Walter Mondale to forgive the $10 million in accrued interest and whittle the $7.5 million in damages to $6 million. Of course, the Israelis had the trump card: that the Reagan-Bush team told them that the Carter White House was working on its own “October Surprise” to ship arms to Iran in return for a pre-election release of the U.S. hostages. The blackmailed worked. The Liberty and Poet, and the combined 68 crewmen who lost their lives from Israeli military action, would remain forgotten.
The cover-up would even extend to Arlington National Cemetery. The grave markers of six Liberty crewmen who died from the Israeli attack were simply notated: “died in the Eastern Mediterranean, June 8, 1967.” Nothing indicated they died from hostile military action. In June 1982, just prior to the anniversary of the Liberty attack, the markers were revised by the Department of the Army to read: “Killed, USS Liberty, June 8, 1967.”
There is reason to believe that two major branches of the U.S. military — the U. S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force — began to part company over relations with Israel as early as June 1967. In a 1984 book titled “Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations with a Militant Israel,” author Stephen Green reveals that the Libertywas attacked by the Israelis because the ship detected a secret U.S. Air Force operation in the Negev Desert during the Six Day War. The secret Israeli nuclear weapons plant at Dimona is located in the Negev. Any collaboration between the Air Force and Israelis as early as 1967 would go a long way in explaining Israel’s links to the recent breakdown in the nuclear security at U.S. Air Force bases in Minot, North Dakota; Barksdale, Louisiana; and F. E Warren in Wyoming and the mercurial rise in influence of former Israeli Air Force major Dr. Lani Kass in U.S. Air Force strategic planning operations.
On May 6, 1992, the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak responded in a letter to the New York Times to an attack on their column by long-time Israel apologist Abe Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times. In November 1991, Evans and Novak reported that the Israelis knew the Liberty was an American ship when they attacked it. Rosenthal tried to insinuate that one of the columnists’ sources, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter, would not confirm Evans’ and Novaks’ earlier report. The columnists wrote about Rosenthal’s sloppy journalism: “. . . Mr. Rosenthal insinuated in his column that Mr. Porter would not confirm what we wrote because he ‘did not return my call.’ Three days later, after reading the column, Mr. Porter wrote Mr. Rosenthal that he had in now way intended to ‘evade’ him but was not home when the ‘one and only call came.’ ‘I stand by the essential facts set forth in the Evans-Novak column with respect to the attack on the Liberty,” Mr. Porter wrote. Neither Mr. Rosenthal or The Times chose to let readers in on that confirming fact, ignoring the damage to our reputation by Mr. Rosenthal’s accusation. In his letter to Mr. Rosenthal, a copy of which was sent to us, the former Ambassador wrote: “I brought a piece of history into the public domain, which should have been done much earlier by others. This was not done, as you suggest, because I was an ‘opponent of Israel.” Nor are we, no matter what Mr. Rosenthal may think.”
Novak once told this reporter in answer to a question about his late partner Evans, “Rowlie was known for his excellent contacts at the CIA.”
In a July 18, 1967, report to Johnson by Clark Clifford, the chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), Clifford wrote, “the unprovoked attack on the Liberty constitutes a flagrant act of gross negligence for which the Israeli Government should be held completely responsible, and the Israeli military personnel involved should be punished.”
Captain William McGonagle, the commanding officer of the Liberty, who was also severely wounded in the Israeli attack, died in March 1999. McGonagle recieved the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1968 for his actions in saving his ship but, in keeping with Johnson’s cover-up, the award ceremony was not held at the White House but at a quiet affair at the Washington Navy Yard. In 1997, McGonagle broke his long silence and said the Israeli attack on the Liberty was willful and not an error. In 1998, while taking a shower, McGonagle discovered a piece of shrapnel from the Israeli attack had been dislodged and was sticking out through his ribs. He pulled the shrapnel out from his body and collapsed in pain in the shower.
Although the crew of the Liberty have long felt that they were forgotten, WMR has learned of a tantalizing U.S. Navy retaliation for the Israeli attack on the Liberty from U.S. intelligence sources. In September 1967, Johnson had decided that he would not run for re-election. It was a mere three months after he covered-up the Israeli attack on the Navy ship to preserve his standing with Jewish voters and contributors. Johnson’s decision changed the picture dramatically and the top echelon of the Navy and CIA, which knew of Israel’s premeditated attack knew that the time was ripe for a counter-attack.
In November 1967, a two-sentence Reuters item appeared in the newspapers: “Portsmouth, England, Nov. 10 — Israel commissioned her [emphasis added, the use of the feminine descriptor for Israel has long been a puzzle] fourth submarine here today, a craft bought second hand from the British Navy, after a two-year refitting operation. Israel bought the 1,280-ton vessel, renamed the Dakar, with a sister ship, the Leviathan, in November, 1964.” Dakar, Hebrew for “shark,” was a World War II-vintage submarine before its three year retrofit began in Portsmouth in 1964.
Little did the 69-member commissioning crew of the Dakar realize, but their submarine was a marked target the minute they departed Portsmouth.
On January 26, 1968, it was the British Admiralty, not the Israeli Naval headquarters in Haifa, the destination of the Dakar, that first reported the submarine was missing. The British reported the Dakar’s last known position was some 100 miles west of Cyprus. The Israelis, for the most part, treated the submarine’s disappearance as a state secret. Even after Haifa Navy radio began broadcasting SOS distress calls to commercial vessels to be on the look out for the Dakar, Israeli officials in Jerusalem would not even admit the submarine was missing. The Israelis later admitted the last signal it received from Dakar was at mid-day on January 26, at a position southwest of Cyprus. The lst message from Dakar’s deputy commander, Major Avraham Barkai, was “The Dakar is in the depths at full strength.”
Significantly, the British destroyer Diana and the U.S. destroyer Turner deployed to the area around the last datum of the Dakar with decompression equipment for any survivors.
The Israelis adamantly denied that the Dakar sank as the result of hostile action. However, a retaliatory strike by the U.S. Navy, aided by its close ally Britain, would not be “hostile action” but revenge for a deliberate Israeli attack on the Liberty known not only to the top echelons of the U.S. Navy, CIA, NSA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and State Department, but also to senior British military and intelligence officials through NSA’s British counterpart and partner, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which maintained a number of listening stations in Cyprus.
There was a report that searchers in Cyprus intercepted a signal on the same radio frequency used by the Dakar’s radio buoy and that it may have been a distress call. At first, the buoy could not be found by search vessels and planes. There were also reports that U.S., British, Israeli, Greek, and Turkish vessels and planes had spotted oil slicks, oil drums, and floating wreckage but these reports soon ceased. In 1969, Israeli officials revealed that an emergency buoy from the Dakar had washed ashore 90 miles south of Tel Aviv.
Suddenly, and without further comment, Israel called off its search on February 4, 1968. The Israelis stated that the Dakar was involved in crash diving exercises on its return voyage and probably as a result of a mechanical failure. On April 25, 1968, Vice Admiral Abraham Botzer, the commander of the Israeli Navy, stated that the Dakar sank from “technical or human malfunctioning.” He ruled out “foul play,” a change in terminology from previous denials that “hostile action” sank the Dakar. The Dakar was reported to have gone down on January 24, 1968, two days before the British Admiralty’s first announcement.
The Israeli admiral’s statement was far from the end of the story about the Dakar. On January 1, 1970, the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar reported that the Dakar had been sunk by an Egyptian naval vessel with depth charges. The Israeli government merely responded by stating there was no evidence to substantiate the Egyptian charges. Later, an Israeli army spokesman called the Egyptian report “absolute nonsense,” iterating that an Israeli court of inquiry could never determine the cause of the sinking. However, the Israeli army spokesman changed the date of the Dakar’s sinking to January 25, 1968, the third date change by the Israelis. Later reports said radio contact was lost with the Dakar on January 24, south of Crete.
Oddly, on August 25, 1986, the New York Times, in an article by John Cushman, Jr., reported that the U.S. Navy was going to conduct a search for the Dakar, not in waters west of Cyprus, but in Egyptian waters, ironically, in waters close to where the Liberty was attacked in 1967. The Navy committed P-3 Orion marine reconnaissance and USS Forrestal-based S-3 anti-submarine warfare aircraft for the search. Private contractors were hired by the Navy to examine the submarine’s hull in the event it was located. During the 1980s, the Israelis used a salvage vessel with Egyptian liaison officers on board to look for the Dakar in waters north of Sinai. There were three such missions that turned up empty handed. The U.S. Navy had originally offered Israel to help locate the Dakar and an agreement was hammered out that the Egyptians would cooperate in the search. The search in Egyptian waters was unsuccessful as was one conducted off of the Greek island of Rhodes.
In 1997, there was another strange twist to the tale of the Dakar. A book titled “Dakar,” written by former Israeli Navy Captain Michael Eldar, was yanked off bookshelves in Israel on national security grounds. Police confiscated copies of the book and other documents from Eldar’s home. Oddly, the book had already been cleared for publication by Israel’s military censorship authority. Eldar’s book contained an astonishing revelation: that the search for the Dakar had never been serious. The question remains, if the Israelis and others conducted a half-hearted search for the Israeli submarine, what was the reason?
Then, there was another strange turn. In October 1998, Israel began running advertisements in newspapers in a number of countries offering rewards of between $5,000 and $300,000 for any information on the fate of the Dakar. Ads were placed in newspapers in Turkey, Egypt, France, Greece, and Russia. Strangely, France lost one of its submarines, the Minerve, in the western Mediterranean as the search for the Dakar was underway in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of January 1968.
The Minervedisappeared 25 miles southeast of the French naval base of Toulon with 52 men on board. The Minerve’s commander, up to a week before its deployment from Toulon, said he had never had any problems with the vessel. The U.S. Navy submarine rescue ship, the USS Petrel, which was en route from Gibraltar to assist in the search for the Dakar, was diverted to help find the Minerve. On January 31, the French Navy declared the Minerve lost at sea. On March 4, 1970, the French suffered an eerie replay. The submarine Eurydice,with a crew of 57, was lost 35 miles east of Toulon, in the same general area where the Minerve was lost two years earlier. A large explosion was detected by the Fnch Navy and some papers from the Eurydicewere found floating on the ocean surface. Two years earlier, President Charles de Gaulle had attended a memorial service for the Minerve on board the Eurydice.
The Israeli ads on information about the Dakar were placed in Russian papers in an attempt to attract a retired Russian naval officer who might have information.
Interestingly, the planes used by the Israelis to attack the Libertywere French-made Dassault Mirage III fighters.
At the end of May 1999, a U.S.-Israeli search team, with the U.S. firm Nauticos as prime contractor, finally located the Dakar in 9500-feet of water between Cyprus and Crete. The Nauticos underwater robotic equipment used to find the Titanic was used to locate the Dakar. The Dakar was found on its original course, not off of Egypt as thought earlier by some searchers.
The Dakar was found on the bottom with its bow section intact. According to an eyewitness account by Brigadier General Gideon Raz, who was a former deputy commander of the Israeli Navy, the middle part of the submarine was heavily damaged with amidships debris scattered on the sea floor. The aft section was completely separated from the rest of the submarine. The Dakar’sreported debris field coincides with the information received from U.S. intelligence sources. The submarine was broken in two aft of the conning tower. The actual story related to WMR is that the Dakar was hit by a lightweight acoustic homing air-dropped torpedo. The mission was highly compartmented and classified. Yet it proved to the Israelis that some sectors in the U.S. military and intelligence community had no problem in killing 69 Israeli sailors in retaliation for Israel’s attack on the Liberty and the loss of 34 U.S. sailors.
There would be yet one more strange postscript to the story of the Dakar. Mere hours after hearing that the Dakar had been located, retired Israeli Navy Commander, Admiral Michael Barkai, committed suicide. Barkai’s brother, Avraham, had been the deputy commander of the Dakar who was lost with the other 68 crewmen.